It has been nearly 20 years since Biggy’s death on 9th March 1997. Alex takes a look at his legendary album, Life After Death.
On the posthumous Life After Death, The Notorious B.I.G. (Christopher Wallace) reflects that “you’re nobody ‘till somebody kills you”. Shot dead in LA just sixteen days before the release of his second album, he deserves his place amongst hip hop’s legends on the strength of his music alone. A staple on lists of the greatest rappers ever (Billboard put him at number one in 2015), Biggie has proved enduring in his popularity. His viscous, captivating flow and cinematic storytelling can be found in abundance on Life After Death, which debuted at the top of the Billboard 200. Nearly 20 years later, it is as potent as ever and deserves to be considered one of the greatest rap albums of all time.
B.I.G.’s first album, Ready to Die, finished with Suicidal Thoughts – and the sound of Biggie shooting himself whilst his friend pleads desperately with him. Life After Death carries on where Ready to Die left off, opening with the sound of a heart-rate monitor flatlining. At times grim, often violent, but always compelling, the album paints a picture of life on the edge. Biggie, unlike some mainstream rappers today, never gives us pointless lines or nonsensical rhymes – everything he does works towards the song’s narrative. Life After Death still feels fresh and relevant, no doubt in part due to its lack of 90s pop-culture references. The album also boasts some impressive features – it’s great to hear Biggie team up with Jay-Z on ‘I Love The Dough’, and R. Kelly provides an irresistible hook on ‘#!*@ You Tonight’.
‘Hypnotize’ is the third track on the album, probably the most popular (it has nearly 40 million more streams on Spotify than the classic ‘Mo Money Mo Problems’) and has one of the most iconic hooks in hip hop – ‘biggie biggie biggie can’t you see/ sometimes your words just hypnotize me’. It is arguably one of the greatest rap songs of the 90s and shines even on this classic album. ‘Mo Money Mo Problems’ and ‘Going Back to Cali’ also stand out, bringing an upbeat party vibe to the album. ‘Going Back to Cali’ in particular has a g-funk sound reminiscent of Snoop Dogg’s classic Doggystyle. Darker in tone are ‘What’s Beef?’ and ‘Niggas Bleed’. Although they are less accessible to casual hip-hop fans, both are gripping and underline Biggie’s true talent for storytelling. ‘Miss U’ demonstrates the variety on Life After Death, providing another change in tone as B.I.G laments the deaths of a friend and a girl he saw as his ‘little sister’.
Mentioning a small selection of the songs on Life After Death cannot do justice to a classic album. What gives Life After Death its enduring appeal is the sheer number of great songs – a 24 track album, that’s nearly 2hrs long, without a dud. The album is not perfect, Biggie’s misogyny and casual homophobia can be wince-inducing and date the album in places. Having said that, Life After Death is one of hip hop’s seminal works and still deserves to be celebrated 20 years after its release.
Take a trip down memory lane by listening to some of his best tracks: